Updated: Crosscut's new approach

Crosscut has completed its migration to a new, nonprofit model. Here are recent developments and a case for this new media structure. And now's the time for you to become an annual member.
Crosscut archive image.

David Brewster, founder of Crosscut.

Crosscut has completed its migration to a new, nonprofit model. Here are recent developments and a case for this new media structure. And now's the time for you to become an annual member.

There are a lot of exciting developments here at Crosscut, so I'm happy to bring you up to date. And I'd like you to think about becoming a part of this interesting venture in community-based, member-supported journalism.

Crosscut Public Media, the publisher of Crosscut.com, recently received its tax-exempt status from the IRS, so we are now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. (Earlier, Crosscut was published by a for-profit company, Crosscut LLC, which has gone out of business after donating all its assets to the new nonprofit.) Also recently, we received some major early support in the form of a $100,000 gift for this project to the Seattle Foundation, serving as our fiscal sponsor at the time, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This key lead gift, along with $50,000 of funding from generous individuals, is meant to launch Crosscut's new mission of providing online local journalism in the public interest, and to build Crosscut's capacity and sustainability. The next step is our first Charter Membership Drive, beginning this month, and I hope you will consider becoming an annual member.

This generous vote of confidence in Crosscut's new nonprofit model has enabled us to take several important steps forward. One is hiring a new deputy editor, Mark Matassa, a respected local political writer and editor who has worked in those capacities at The Seattle Times, The P-I and The Los Angeles Times. Way early in the Web curve, Mark and some others started a local news aggregator in 1999, called PersonalReader.com. He's a real pro, with deep knowledge of this town and its writers. Make sure you include him in your emails to us with story ideas, tips, and comments: mark.matassa@crosscut.com.

Additionally, we have just hired a new executive director, Jill Mogen, most recently publisher of Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, a quality local magazine, and before that ad director at Eastsideweek and Seattle Weekly, where we were colleagues. Jill will be in charge of the non-editorial sides of Crosscut, including ad sales, membership, marketing, and fundraising. Like Mark, Jill knows this town and local publishing very well. She also has a law degree, and has been very active in local philanthropic causes including serving on ACT's board. She's at jill.mogen@crosscut.com.

We have also hired a new office and operations manager, Marilyn Hoe, who was my colleague for many years at Town Hall and in other civic ventures. At Town Hall, Marilyn coordinated civic and arts events and was in charge of volunteers as well as community outreach to the nearby First Hill neighborhood. She'll bring that welcoming spirit to Crosscut. You reach her at marilyn.hoe@crosscut.com.

In late September we relocated from downtown to our very own little building on Cedar Street at the north end of Belltown. We've tripled our space, and find ourselves happily in the midst of a media neighborhood, close to KPLU, KIRO, KOMO, and KCTS. The new space gives us room to staff up and to accommodate more volunteers and interns. Drop me an email if you want to volunteer or otherwise help the cause.

All these new developments represent a kind of relaunch of Crosscut.com, a news site that began in April 2007. For the first year and some, we tried to build a business based on advertising income alone, plus investment capital to get us going. We soon found lots of good writers out there, as well as helpful models in other cities to emulate. Crosscut owes its early success to its founding editor, Chuck Taylor, our first business and marketing manager, Yazmin Mehdi, and our technology whiz, Trevor Smith, who built the site.

In the summer of 2008, I began to suspect that an advertising-only model for revenue was not going to support high-quality journalism. The migration of advertising to the Web had slowed and the rates were staying low. The board weighed further investment against other models, notably the public-broadcast, member-supported model. We engaged Mike Crystal, my longtime colleague as publisher of Seattle Weekly, to look into the nonprofit model, noting encouraging examples in other cities (notably Minneapolis, San Diego, St. Louis, Chicago, Texas, and New Haven, Conn. and soon to be in Chicago and the Bay Area). Late last year, the board and owners voted to shift to this new model, and the owners of Crosscut LLC generously donated all assets of the company to the newly formed Washington state nonprofit corporation, Crosscut Public Media.

Setting all this in motion has taken some time as we assembled a new board, the case statements, budgets, and business plans, as well as securing our tax-exempt status and lining up early seed funding. Last November, we had to furlough much of the staff while we regrouped. Our contributing writers, now about 40 strong, continued to produce fine stories, and you readers have stayed with us and helped the site to grow. Another factor during the past year has been the very unsettled media landscape, particularly after the Post-Intelligencer stopped its print edition and many journalists were cut adrift by layoffs at other publications.

That landscape is still tossing about and discovering new fault lines, but I do think that one clear model (among several) that has emerged is the Crosscut model: serious about quality journalism, independent, nonpartisan, broad in its range of topics as well as geography and demography, and dedicated to "journalism in the public interest" as a mission-driven, community-supported nonprofit. This model has greater stability from three sources of income: annual memberships, grants and major gifts, and advertising and sponsorships. (No government funding, though; a difference from public broadcast.) Diverse sources of revenue translate into greater sustainability and flexibility. Community ownership means mission-driven and not tempted to be sold to other owners or out-of-town companies.

I happen to love working in the nonprofit framework, having learned about it in the eight years I was creating and running Town Hall, a civic and performance venue on Seattle's First Hill. As an editor, I love the new framework for picking stories and writers and focusing coverage. In the commercial context, particularly in Web journalism, there is great pressure to run stories that get a lot of hits (gossip about Sarah Palin, for example), and also to do stories that reinforce a niche that advertisers covet (technology breakthroughs, for instance). Now those pressures are reduced, and we can think primarily of running stories that the public needs to know, including somewhat longer and therefore more nuanced stories that lead people out of their comfort zones. "Journalism in the public interest," it's called (a little stuffy, I agree).

The free market, it's been said, is not good in producing "public goods." (In their monopoly phase, television stations and metropolitan newspapers made so much money that they once could afford documentaries and overseas bureaus and the like. No more.) But public-supported nonprofits are supposed to produce public goods. They have some advantages (tax exemptions, primarily, as well as more access to volunteers and mission-motivated staffers) to make this more likely to happen. More likely, but certainly not automatic. Public broadcast outlets need to be more vigorous, leading-edge, and irreverent. Just as media can be too solicitous of its advertisers and its niche sensibilities, so public media can be tamed by major donors and fears of congressional eruptions.

As conventional media falters, the tide does seem to be shifting to this public model. There are good examples of the Crosscut approach in Minneapolis (MinnPost), Austin ( and San Diego (Voice of San Diego). Soon ambitious efforts will be launched in Chicago, D.C., and the Bay Area, looping in a journalism school and a public broadcast station. In some cases, these ventures are capturing some of the best talent that has been cast off from the local major dailies.

Most encouraging to me in these stories is the way citizens, generous donors, and hang-in-there journalists all seem to realize that if local media is going to be saved from its steep plunge, it takes all of us to do it. We've passed the point of expecting some savior to buy up a faltering local daily. Or thinking that the Web will soon find a way to make so much money from local advertising that it can support a broad, high-quality site. We've got to do it, just as "we" have to support education and the arts and social-service charities.

So I put it to you to become a Charter Member of Crosscut, as we launch our first drive for member support. Already, 200 of you have joined and we are 80 percent of the way to our goal for this first campaign. I hope you like what we have done so far, publishing lively and informed comment and reporting on many subjects and all across the region for which Seattle is a kind of metropolitan capital. We're not the only good new voice out there, but I think we are one of the best and most thoughtful. We won't be able to do this without lots of members, some of them very generous. And as a Charter Member, you'll enjoy some benefits such as New Member Coffees and free admission to members-only events where you'll meet some of our writers and other important folks in the region. (First one will be Nov. 19, for members only.)I very much hope you'll join today and encourage friends also to join.

I thank you heartily for being a faithful reader and for becoming an annual member.


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